Category Archives: Things to do

Good morning Vietnam!

Standard

Sorry for the cheesy movie reference title … I couldn’t help it!

For the CNY bank holiday, the boy and I decided to take a little trip out of the Lion City, and explore a bit more of South East Asia. Will had already been to Vietnam once before, on his gap year. Needless to say, some things had no doubt changed, so with our flights to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (will someone please tell me what I should call it?!) booked, off we went to explore.

We arrived in Vietnam after just a short flight (it’s just  2 hours from Singapore) and then hopped straight into a cab to our hotel. We stayed at the Cinnamon Hotel which I’d really recommend. We had a beautiful room, delicious breakfasts, and the staff were super helpful and friendly, despite having to work over the Tet holiday (the Vietnamese equivalent of CNY). We also booked our trip down the Mekong through them, and were delighted with that too. The hotel is nice and central; just a short walk to most of the main sights in the city.

After a good snooze and breakfast, we headed to the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Palace was the workplace of the President of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War, during the fall of Saigon, when a North Vietnamese tank was crashed through its gates. It is quite an imposing building, although I wouldn’t say it was beautiful. There are replica tanks in the grounds, along with the details of the Vietnamese soldiers who were involved in the attack on the palace.

The building is carefully preserved, and its easy to imagine what it would have been like during the war, with the rooms left just as they would have been during the war. We enjoyed walking around, admiring all the artifacts. It is a real time capsule in there. Bits of it reminded me of the Churchill War Rooms in London – especially the bits in the basement – lots of long, concrete corridors, with small offices and lots of maps, telephones, and other communication equipment.

It was fascinating to walk around and to explore the history of the building. I think it is great how it has been preserved so that you can really imagine it full of military and government personal walking around in the 1970’s. I also enjoyed standing on the balcony at the front of the building, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to watch the tanks breaking through the gates, and knowing your world was going to change forever.

After exploring the Reunification Palace, we headed out of the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese guerrillas, in their fight against the Americans during the Vietnam war, allowing them to outwit the American troops, as well as supplying the guerrilla fighters with hiding places, food, supplies and communications. The tunnels are believed to have been instrumental in the eventual victory over the Americans.

Let’s get one thing straight – the tunnels are tiny! Most of them have been widened so that ‘large’ Western tourists can explore them! See the below photos for a couple of people in our group getting into one of the tiny entrances to see what I mean!

The tour starts with a video, which is in shaky black and white footage, where you learn all about the brave Vietnamese and the despicable American soldiers – it is very much Vietnamese anti-American propaganda, and I think its important you recognise it as such. However, it is an interesting insight into the national psyche and attitudes towards the war. We then joined our guide who took us around the tunnel complex. Most of the things to see are above ground – you see the breathing holes that they cleverly disguised as big termite mounds round the bottom of trees – the had small holes hidden in them where the guerrillas could go to so they could get fresh air. There are countless entrances and exits, all very small, and disguised underneath the leaf mulch, rendering them completely invisible, unless you knew where to look. The Vietnamese not only used the tunnels – they also laid traps for the Americans, such as digging pits with sharpened, hardened bamboo spikes in them, which would ensure that their enemy slowly bled to death, after being impaled.

The experience was brilliant – you learnt so much about how the Vietnamese lived and worked in the tunnels, and how they used old unexploded shells and bomb casings to make their own weapons and traps. You have to admire the ingenuity! The actual part where you crawl through the tunnels was short. The tunnels are smooth (or at least the ones you can crawl through) and dry. I’m not exactly tall but I found it hard going – you are bent over the entire time and its tough on the thighs! As I was crouching along the tunnels, I felt real admiration for the Vietnamese who lived day in day out in these tunnels, whilst the threat from the Americans was all around them. I was astonished that more of them didn’t get lost in the tunnels, as they are completely pitch black once your guide turns a corner and leaves you without torchlight!

It was a brilliant day, learning all about the history of the area, and the people who lived there. Before we went, I must confess to not knowing masses about the Vietnam War – I knew bits and pieces but my understanding was shaky at best. It was an eye-opening and enlightening experience.

I’ll post more about the rest of the trip over the next few days!

Advertisements

Chinese New Year 2012: Year of the Dragon

Standard

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Or Happy New (lunar) Year. As no doubt all you Singapore folks know, it was Chinese New Year this weekend. Kinda hard to miss it right?! For everyone else, Chinese New Year is bigger than Christmas here – its HUGE – and a bit like Christmas, everywhere is covered in decorations and the build up starts weeks beforehand.

Chinese New Year is probably the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays, marking the end of winter, and the beginning of spring. There are lots of traditions surrounding Chinese New Year, and I’ve been finding out a bit about some of the ones that Singaporeans do to make this festival special.

For starters, everywhere you go (our condo included) is covered in gold and red decorations. This is because in Chinese culture red and gold are lucky and prosperous colours. Red symbolises happiness, good fortune and joy, essential to starting a new year. At new year, small red envelopes (ang pow) are handed out, with a small monetary gift inside. These are usually given by married people to unmarried people, and by adults to children. Traditionally, the amount of money contained in the envelope should be an even number, such as S$8 (8 is also a particularly lucky number in Chinese culture), although our taxi driver who told us all about it, reckoned he only put S$2 (about £1) in his!

Before the new year arrived, every house will have been cleaned from top to bottom. This symbolises sweeping away any bad luck or problems from the previous year, to start the year with a clean slate, and hopefully better fortune. There must be a suitable period of time to elapse before the house can be cleaned again after the new year, to avoid sweeping good luck out of the house.

Houses are then decorated with red and gold decorations, and with flowers. There are a variety of flowers that are popular at new year, all of which have different meanings. Plum blossoms are very popular, and symbolise being lucky.

Now, this is Singapore, so no good set of festivities would be complete without its own set of traditional dishes and snacks. One of the things you can’t get away from here, is the pineapple tarts. These are tiny little bite-sized chunks of pastry, topped with a pineapple jam, that are sold everywhere in supermarkets and shopping centres. There also seem to have been a huge amount of Singaporean (and expat) bloggers who have taken the time to make their own. Two of my favourites are here and here. Pineapples are lucky (as the sound of the word for pineapple in Chinese is close to ‘good luck coming your way’), so as a result, not only do you need to eat sweet things made of them, but you also need to hang paper versions in your house as well! Oranges are also given, and represent wealth and good fortune.

This year is the Year of the Dragon, so we have really been spoilt for choice with dragon decorations! I have particularly loved the ENORMOUS dragon that was at the junction of Cross Street and New Bridge Road. The dragon is supposed to be particularly auspicious, as it is the only mythical animal in the Chinese cosmic cycle. People born in the Year of the Dragon are said to be innovative, enterprising, flexible, self-assured, brave and passionate. Dragon people are flamboyant and don’t do things by halves.

I’m sure there are tons more traditions and symbols that I’ve missed out, but these are just some of the things I’ve noticed or learnt about during the build-up to Chinese New Year. We actually weren’t in Singapore for the day itself, instead using the four-day weekend to go to Vietnam, which I shall blog about soon (and all its various ways of celebrating the new year!). So for now, Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Makansutra cooking masterclass

Standard

Those of you who know me well will know that there is nothing I love more than cooking. I love trying out new recipes and ingredients, and am undaunted by Ottolenghi-esque ingredient lists and complexity. You can imagine my joy then, to be invited to a cooking masterclass, with KF Seetoh (aka super Singaporean celebrity chef and food critic). I don’t think I could have said ‘yes’ more quickly to my invitation (thanks Laura!).

The cooking masterclass was organised by the folks at notatourist.sg, and was held at Tools of the Trade which a very confused taxi uncle eventually managed to get us to (thank goodness for iPhone maps). This place is full of all the latest kitchen gadgetry, and it was only the thought of all my kitchen gear bobbing somewhere over the sea to me that stopped me investigating further … I have enough kitchen stuff, I don’t need more! Tools of the Trade run a whole host of cooking classes that you can go to (details on their website) so the place is really set up for cooking classes.

On arrival, we were given little booklets that showed us what we’d be making. They were all dishes I’d never tried before, so I knew this was going to be a fun experience. On the menu we had: Rojak salad, Hainanese Pork Chop, and Bubur Cha Cha ice cream. Yum yummy yum! KF Seetoh took us through each dish, before we attempted having a go at it on our own. He was great fun – very clear, charismatic and engaging, giving us a little history on each dish and how it came to be created. It was fascinating learning how much of Singaporean food is born out of a fusion of cultures, cuisines and availability of ingredients. For example, I never knew that the sauce for the Hainanese pork chop contained ketchup and HP sauce, and was born out of many Hainanese working as cooks for Britons, and merging their own ingredients with those favoured by the British.

We kicked off our experiment in Singaporean cooking with the Rojak salad. This was something I’d heard of before coming out here, but really had no idea what went into it. It basically has no set rules about what goes into it – so long as its fresh and crunchy, anything goes! Our version had cucumber, pineapple, a local kind of turnip, apples, beansprouts and peanuts. You slice up the fruit and veg, and then gently toss it in a spicy dressing made from shrimp paste, sugar, sambal, tamarind water and lime juice. it’s finished off with some shavings of torch ginger, which I’d never even heard of before, never mind used! Rojak is actually delicious – spicy, crunchy and refreshing all at the same time. KF Seetoh told us that there are no set rules about when to eat rojak – you just eat it when you feel like it! I’d definitely eat it again, although I learnt that its best to eat it fresh – I took some home in a doggy bag, and it was definitely past its best the day after!

After that, we moved onto the Hainanese pork chop. I was a little bit daunted by it, as it involves deep-frying, which I’ve never done myself. The pork is flattened until its very thin, and then coated in egg and breadcrumbs, before being deep fryed until golden. Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied with getting my oil hot enough, that the oil was actually TOO hot, resulting in a slightly burned pork chop. Not my finest hour! Making the sauce was fun – you mix chopped carrots, peas and sweetcorn, into a mixture of ketchup, HP sauce, lemon juice, sugar and oyster sauce, and then thicken with corn flour. It sounds horrible when you look at the ingredients, but it’s actually nicely sweet and sour, and goes well with the crispy pork. It was served up smothered in sauce, and with fried potatoes on the side. Not the healthiest dish, but surprisingly delicious.

We finished off with the Bubur Cha Cha ice cream (try guessing what’s in that from the name – sounds like a dance to me!) It’s basically coconut ice cream, with yam, sweet potato, banana and tapioca pearls, finished off with a sweet, yet slightly salty sauce. The sauce is made from gula melaka, known as palm sugar in the UK. It’s an ingredient that I’d searched for many times in Asian supermarkets to no avail, so was delighted to get to use the real deal, rather than brown sugar. It makes a treacly sauce, a  bit like molasses but sweeter. I enjoyed the ice cream, sauce and fruit elements very much. I found the texture of the yam and sweet potato, in something sweet, slightly odd to what I’m used to, but it was very tasty, and I’d happily eat the whole lot again. It was also fun trying the tapioca pearls, which I’ve seen floating at the bottom of cups of bubble tea, which is popular here, but never tried. They are oddly chewy but oddly moreish!

I had great fun trying out cooking some local dishes. I love South East Asian food, and would cook it all the time in the UK (and will here of course), but I’d never cooked anything that was uniquely ‘Singaporean’. I’m so excited about having a properly equipped kitchen soon, so I can try recreating these, and other dishes. I also enjoyed being directed by someone who was so knowledgeable about the origins of each dish – it made me appreciate it all the more, knowing where it had come from. It was a fantastic evening.

Thanks to Laura for inviting me along, and for notatourist.sg and Makansutra for organising the class.